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Effigy Vessel of Face With Open Mouth

200 BCE-200 CE
7.9 cm x 7.8 cm x 13.7 cm (3 1/8 in. x 3 1/16 in. x 5 3/8 in.)

Not on view


Resting on conical supports on the back of the head, this small tripod vessel has two large openings, one in the forehead and the other simulating a wide-open mouth. The vessel is dark gray, with a lighter brown or tan on the lower left side of the face, under the chin, and on the underside of the head, resulting from uneven firing. The external surface of the head, with the exception of the ears, is highly burnished. A small bonnet-like headdress element with punctuate marks was added as an appliqué.

Two incised motifs encircle the eyes; the interior areas were left unburnished. Both motifs terminate in pointed curved scrolls on the cheeks. An additional three bands of decreasing size are above the left eye. The nostrils are indicated by thick conical punctures that penetrate 3–5 mm into the clay. Two small perforations, one above the opening in the forehead and the other below the open mouth, are 3.2 mm in diameter, apparently made by leaving in place thin wooden sticks that burned away during firing. The border of the opening in the forehead was smoothed; the edge of the mouth was burnished. The differences in finish and the position of the openings suggest that the mouth was the main aperture of the vessel. The interior of the vessel is partitioned by a flat clay plaque. It is not known what this bipartite receptacle once contained. Small holes near the mouth and forehead openings could have served as hinges for securing small lids with strings. The internal clay wall was not fused before firing, and possible resulting cracks would have permitted liquids to pass from one chamber to another. Presumably the vessel was meant to contain a substance in solid state (powdered?) and that such content, sealed with covers, was easily retrieved by some kind of spoon.
Similar effigy vessels are known from various collections, but none has a secure provenience or date. They range between 12 and 22 cm in length, but it is uncertain whether they have supports and internal partitions that define separate chambers.

The possible function of this type of object has been posited as a libation cup or a scribal paint repository. The seemingly wide spatial and temporal distribution of small open-mouthed effigy vessels suggests the possibility of a diversity of contextual uses. Some, like this effigy vessel in the Bliss Collection, may have been part of the tool kit for artists from several Mesoamerican scribal traditions, that is, receptacles in which powdered pigments were kept prior to them being diluted; others may have stored powdered pigments applied to the human body before raids or immolation. Yet others could have been used as drinking vessels in rituals.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 9, cat. 42.

Parsons, Lee Allen, John B. Carlson and Peter David Joralemon 1988 The Face of Ancient America: The Wally and Brenda Zollman Collection of Precolumbian Art. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis. p. 80-81, cat. 57.

Acquisition History
Purchased from John A. Stokes Jr., New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1960.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Anthropomorphic | Heads